Art and Other Lies

In my grandparents’ bedroom, hung respectively over each of the bedside tables that flank the bed, are reproductions of the iconic 18th-century paintings known as “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie.” 

These richly-lit portraits of youths clad in monochromatic attire were created by different artists a quarter of a century apart, but that hasn’t prevented the two from being almost always displayed as a pair — they are hung together in their permanent home at the Huntington Library and in the Cleaver residence of “Leave It to Beaver.” 

I hadn’t thought about “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” for years until they appeared, appropriately but also uncannily, in one of the architectural assemblages in Drew Conrad’s exhibition “Backwater Blues” at the Get This! Gallery in Midtown.

Conrad’s work resides ambiguously somewhere between sculpture and architecture, finding its most obvious relative in the combine paintings produced by Robert Rauschenberg in the 1950s. 

These paintings incorporated sculptural and found objects into the surface of a painted canvas. The assemblages are grouped into three categories: the largest pieces are dwellings, the smallest are remnants and in between is debris. “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” hang precariously on the wall of one of these dwellings, “Dwelling No. 6 (Blue Boy & Pinkie),” nearly obscured by a languorous tatter of wallpaper that threatens to drape over the portraits.

Below the paintings and the wall sconce that hesitatingly illuminates them is further evidence of decay: exposed rotten floorboards, the fractured skeletal remains of the wall’s interior, dirt itself. 

These are materials that speak of their own temporality and decadence, wavering between careful composure and inevitable destruction. 

Throughout the exhibition are rusty nails, flaccid pennants, mounds of dirt, bits of cloth and strands of electric wire, all confessing their own transience but staking a claim to charm, even if it is swiftly passing.

One of the effects of this deterioration is the elimination of the physical and psychological boundaries between exterior and interior, leaving the observer no clear understanding of where public space ends and private space begins. (Perhaps, then again, there is no public space here, only multiple intersecting realms of privacy). 

With gestures like this, Conrad offers a strange hospitality, inviting observers to embrace the voyeuristic opportunities he is providing them. 

Another viewer attending the exhibition during my visit maintained the sympathetic but ultimately objective stance of a passive observer.

“It’s just so sad,” I heard her say. “To see the remains of what was once so beautiful, so beloved.” From her perspective, the process of deterioration was detached, something happening to a distant other. For my own part, however, I felt more culpable in the decay, as if my viewing of destruction initiated my participation in it.

There is a certain violence present in “Backwater Blues,” but the source of this violence is never explicitly named. 

Certainly, there is the violence time has waged upon these structures, but what part do human lives play in this? 

Though the boxing gloves placed near Conrad’s “Dwelling No. 5 (Punching Bag)” are on the ground, one is tempted to pick them up, put them on and punch the bag that hangs from the assemblage. 

This could never happen, of course, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of temptation. 

— By Logan Lockner 

Photo courtesy of Get This! Gallery

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